The Cardio Myth - Edge of Wellness

The Cardio Myth

“All I need is 60 minutes on this bike and I’ll be ok.”

If you’re like me you have been there and done that!  Trudging out last night’s or worse, last weekend’s, worth of guilt.  A slave to your conscious for not getting out of bed for yesterday’s spin class or how many cocktails I had with the girls… As if that class would have changed the indulgence incurred.  It’s not like your slacking right?  “I can just make it up by doing more tomorrow?!?”

So there I go, of to the gym to sit on a recumbent bike for 60 minutes while I check my email, catch up on the latest celebrity gossip or call my new fiancé (just to let him know I will NOT let myself go…).  And when I am done, I treat myself to a large smoothie, a reward for “time put in”.

So, 10 lbs heavier, I am frustrated and confused as to why my efforts are not producing results?!?

The “Cardio Confessional” is REAL!

And what’s worse is that most people think that cardio exercise is the silver bullet against weight gain and heart disease!  Specifically, walking, jogging, cycling and aerobic classes done at a steady state (little to no variation or fluctuation in resistance, speed or both) are the key to health and longevity. Craig Ballantyne, CTT, M.Sc., creator of Turbulence Training, fitness expert, speaker and author of the book The Great Cardio Myth, dispels the belief that long cardio (60 min or more) and endurance workouts will keep us slim and strong.  In fact, in his book, he shows that new research provides evidence that “steady state cardio” not only can make you gain, yes gain weight, by increasing you appetite, changing hormone production that leads to a sluggish metabolism and loss of lean muscle mass.  Moreover, cardio overuse or excessive cardio can put strain on the heart, joins and muscles leading to illness and injury! Everything you have been told about cardio exercise has been wrong!

Where did we get the idea that Cardio was the cure?

Since the 1960’s  John F. Kennedy’s campaign that “Americans were getting soft” due to the increase in desk jobs and the invention of the television, the alarm has been sound on the risk of leading a sedentary lifestyle.  Kennedy and a physician names Kenneth Cooper began developing a physical conditioning program for NASA and the U.S. Air Force to ensure astronaut’s and airmen’s hearts were in top condition for flight  The training program called “Aerobics’ seemed to be so beneficial that it was launched to the general public.  The “invention” of aerobics doubled the amount of exercisers in America during that decade.

Walking, jogging, cycling and aerobic classes became the prescription for health and beauty and the frame of thought was:

  • Duration- the longer the better
  • Intensity- a level sustainable for an hour or more
  • frequency- at least three times a week, but daily of possible

Fast forward to the mid 2000’s — still today this formula seems to be the ideal!  Yet, 50% of Americans log more than 150 minutes of cardio a week and the population of overweight is 68.7 %!

Since the 1990’s and early 2000’s several studies have shown that our previous thought of steady state cardio is not likely to produce the results we had been told.  In fact, in Ballantyne’s Book, he delves deep into several studies world wide that show steady state cardio done over a long duration can even be counter productive to out health and weight loss.  In the 1980’s researchers even began to look at marathon runners and the relationship not just to injury of the body due to overuse but more importantly to death due to a cardiac incident while running. Surely marathon runners with their commitment to duration, intensity and frequency should be at the top of their health and wellness?  HA!  Not even close with many dying in the prime of their careers and condition.

Read Ballantyne’s article on why he stopped doing cardio here.

What Should We Do?

Traditional emphasis on cardio and little weight training is a recipe for flabby, overweight, unhealthy aging bodies.  Overuse of cardio is known to inhibit lean muscle mass growth due to your bodies need for protein during the recovery phase.  Lean muscle mass is very important– it helps the body prevent disease, raised the bodies baseline metabolic rate helping to prevent an accumulation of unhealthy body fat and lessons the risk of injury and frailty.  Especially as sedentary adults lose 3-8% of muscle mass per decade.

So, if putting in cardio time is really not producing results and may also impact our lean muscle mass, what should we do?  Current research shows that doing strength training is actually the best way to raise our basal metabolic rate (our metabolism baseline). Even better, adding short bouts of high intensity interval workouts, HIIT, to a strength training routine is the most time efficient and effective way to burn calories.  When creating a workout plan the new frame of thought should be:

  • Duration- Shorter durations (as small as 10-20 minutes) of variable intensity exercises
  • Intensity- Stimulating enough to cause labored breathing in a short period of time
  • Variable- Changing up or cross-training will prevent overuse injury and prevent the body from adapting to exercise stimulus


HIIT training is exercise that alternates short burst of anaerobic activity and very low-intensity aerobic activity. This can be done with cardio activity like riding a bike or with resistance activity like bodyweight circuits. By alternating shirt burst of intense activity with rest, you’re stressing the metabolic capabilities of your muscle cells, thus burning more fat for energy. The recommended time of a HIIT training session is 10-20 minutes. And, the major benefit HIIT training is that it breaks down your muscles faster and most of the calories actually are burned post workout as your body recovers! Why would we NOT do this?!?

For More information on HIIT Training read my article HIIT This!